March’s Book Covers from Favorite Books

March 31, 2017

Here are a few of my favorite reads from March, along with my book cover illustrations:

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.  A 16-year-old Japanese girl, Nao, fills a diary with words from her “last days on earth.”  She plans to commit suicide, but first wants to tell the story of her 104-year-old grandmother, a Zen nun-writer-anarchist-feminist.  As her story unfolds, we learn about how Nao is tortured and bullied at her school, her father’s failed suicide attempts, and her summer of healing at her grandmother’s temple.

Across the ocean, Ruth, a novelist with writer’s block, discovers the diary in a plastic bag washed up on the beach of her British Columbia island home.  Also in the bag are letters written in French and a vintage Seiko watch, which turn out to be the effects of Nao’s great uncle, a philosophy student and kamikaze pilot who died on a WWII mission. Ruth and her husband speculate that the diary floated to their shores after Japan’s great earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

As Ruth reads the diary, she becomes concerned about Nao’s fate.  Following up clues from the diary pages, Ruth attempts to track down Nao or her family.  Is Nao still alive?

The story unfolds in layers that echo with karmic connection.  Nao is bullied by some horrific classmates and teachers, and we learn that her great uncle was also bullied in the military.  Nao’s father hangs on to life by studying philosophy, and his uncle was also a philosophy student.  A kamikaze pilot is a suicide bomber, but we learn that Nao’s great uncle had decided to crash into the waves instead of killing people whom he did not see as enemies.  Nao’s father and Nao are both preoccupied with suicide plans, but so far had not succumbed.  Lives of “wasting time,” “killing time,” searching for “lost time,” sitting zazen to enter the “now” completely — the novel is a meditation on time and quantum physics and family ties across the years.

Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps by Jonathan Arlan.  This book is a travelogue about Arlan’s long-distance hike along Europe’s Grand Randonnee 5 (GR5) from Geneva, Switzerland to Nice, France.  This 400+mile trail is familiar to French hikers and Europeans, but is not as well-known to Americans.  The trail traverses mountain landscapes and passes through towns and villages, so Arlan stayed in a mix of hotels and remote hiker refuges.

I like to indulge in virtual travels like Arlan’s and imagine myself making a long-distance trek one day.  I’ve read several books about hiking the famous Camino de Santiago across Spain, as well as some books about hiking in Japan.  Most seem to be journals about people met on the trail, and Arlan’s book follows this pattern.  His is not a solitary trek, as he seems to find no shortages of hiking buddies along the trail.  He doesn’t really articulate why he has taken this hike; it serves to satisfy his wanderlust — at least temporarily.  I am not sure why I am drawn to the idea of a long-distance hiking challenge either, but it seems a worthy endeavor not needing fixed benefits.  Arlan says, “It was pleasant to be alone in my own room, half asleep, thinking about how the only thing I needed to do the next day, and the day after, and many days after that, was to wake up, walk, and sleep.  Life hadn’t been this simple in ages.”

Birds, Art, Life: A year of Observation by Kyo Maclear

Maclear is a writer living in Toronto.  She is caught in a kind of lull, waiting, experiencing anticipatory grief as her elderly father suffers health crises and nears death.  In order to help herself stay engaged and connected at this stage of her life, Maclear takes on a project of tagging along with a musician and birder on his urban birdwatching jaunts.  This book uses birding as a launching point to find meaning in life.

Here are a sampling of the lessons drawn from Maclean’s year of observing birds:

“Make leeway for chance.  Sometimes you don’t want to be driven to a point.  Sometimes it is exactly when we lose our bearings or take a detour that life really gets going.”

“Birding is more than an activity.  It’s a disposition.  Keep your eyes and ears and mind open to beauty.  Look for birds in unprecious places, beside fast-food restaurants, and in mall parking lots.”

“Just a nice stroll through a park is enough.  Walk everywhere in the city and you will find you don’t need to traipse up Everest or schlep to Kalamazoo to go places.”

My favorite lessons were Maclean’s meditations on small things:  “I like smallness,”  she says.  “I like the perverse audacity of someone aiming tiny.”  She goes on to say, “In my experience, a work’s external smallness can lead somewhere internally large.”

Remember, “[I]f you listen to birds, every day will have a song in it.”

Beartown by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith

I liked Backman’s previous novel, A Man Called Ove, and so Beartown caught my eye when I was browsing a list of advanced reader copies.  The book will be published in late April 2017.  A small town’s junior hockey team is on its way to the semi-finals, and it seems that everyone — parents, sponsors, students, and spectators — peg their dreams for a revitalized town on a championship team.  The town has suffered economic setbacks, and a winning team would attract investors and maybe even a new hockey academy.

It didn’t hurt that Kevin, a hockey superstar from age 4, was the natural leader of a strong junior team.  But what does it mean for a kid to know only winning?  He has become what he has been told he is — a star, a winner — and because the town believes they need him, they turn a blind eye to his transgressions.

The old coach wants to develop well-rounded players, but the board is gearing up to replace him with the junior coach who values only winning:  “[The old coach,] Sune wanted to keep all the players in their own age group as long as possible, so that they would have time to work on their weaknesses and form rounded, focused teams without any shortcomings.  [The younger coach] David thought that attitude only led to the creation of teams where no one was exceptional.  Sune believed that a player who was allowed to play with older players would play only to his strengths, and David agreed — he just couldn’t see the problem with that.”

Divergent coaching styles are not the only source of tensions in this town.  The general manager is reluctant to implement the hockey board’s wishes, some of the best players on the team bully other students, kids keep secrets from their parents, there are class differences among citizens.  How much wrong-doing do you accept “for the good of the team”?

The tensions rise to the breaking point when Kevin is accused of raping a younger student just hours before the semi-final game.  Kevin misses the game.  The townspeople are livid.  “Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion.  The world become much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil.  The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard.  It makes demands.  Hate is simple.”

This seemingly simple story about hockey is well nuanced and layered.  How does a culture of winning foster a culture of silence?  What makes a team?  Who is a “good” team player?  What is demanded of parents in raising children despite fears, dreams, and expectations?  What is important in life?

“What can the sport give us?  We devote our whole lives to it, and what can we hope to get, at best?  A few moments . . . a few victories, a few seconds when we feel bigger than we really are, a few isolated opportunities to imagine that we’re . . . immortal.  And it’s a lie.  It really isn’t important.”

“Hockey is just a silly little game.  We devote year after year to it without ever really hoping to get anything in return.  We burn and bleed and cry, fully aware that the most the sport can give us, in the very best scenario, is incomprehensibly meager and worthless: just a few isolated moment of transcendence.  That’s all.

But what the hell else is life made of?”

I was impressed with how this story about a hockey town addresses the big questions about life.







2 Responses to “March’s Book Covers from Favorite Books”

  1. Sandy Bessingpas Says:

    I think I would like Beartown. I just requested that our local library acquire it when it is published. Since I am involved in junior hockey I can relate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: